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GoMedia – Toronto 2010

I’m at GoMedia in Toronto this week, an international travel & tourism event, that is making me feel very excited and hopeful about the possibilities of Green travel in Canada.

Representatives from each province in Canada are here to talk to the world’s media about their product – which they’ve decided to do in a speed-dating meeting style. It’s a pretty good idea – you get a good taste to see if you’re a fit and if not, well, you can always find something to chat about in ten minutes!

I’m feeling hopeful about the discovery that so many companies have Green Teams in place — that so many hotels are focussing on making sure that a key goal for their business is sustainability. New developments are happening with green thinking in mind, and for once, it really doesn’t seem to be just ‘greenwash’.

One of the many places I wish I had the time to visit on this trip is Kelowna. I met Catherine from Tourism Kelowna who told me that they are the Solar City of the BC province – they have around 2000 hours of sunshine a year and little rain. Many of their streetlights are solar-lit, and they have more bike paths per capita than anywhere in Canada, (which after the thrills, spills and downright alarming experience that is cycling in nearly-no-bike-lanes-at-all Toronto is good to hear). Oh – and even a bio-dynamic winery!

I may be being needlessly optimistic for once but I can’t help feeling finally tourism is waking up to the idea that it’s not enough just to be ‘seen to be green’ — you have to make those green goals a part of everything you do – from food & beverages through to building materials, laundry services, bike racks and beyond…

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London bike scheme – seven days till launch

Walking from Victoria to the Kings Road, in London yesterday, I was delighted to spot some of the new Barclays Bikes – London’s answer to the fabulous Velibes of Paris. I was geekily checking out the prices and Ts & Cs when two guys on the bikes cycled up for a chat. They were out testing the bikes and making sure that all would go smoothly for the launch on July 30th.

The bikes look great. Flashing front lights, sturdily built – but at the moment they don’t have baskets, however, one of the bike-testers assured me that they would, although after reading Leo Hickman’s Guardian feature, it looks like that might not be true.

A Barclays Bike

Barclays Bike

I’ve already signed up, and if you want to use the scheme when it launches, you need to as well. Although I don’t visit London more than a couple of times a month, I don’t tend to use the tube, so always end up gnashing my teeth on the spectacularly poor bus service (seriously – it took almost 30 minutes to travel from Sloane Square to Knightsbridge yesterday – I stayed on to see how long it would take – I was fascinated by the dreadfulness!) or spending too much cash on cabs. A bike to and from Victoria would be great. And I suspect all my trips would easily be less than 30 minutes too – the free time.

But what of the name? Seriously? Barclays Cycle Hire? Is that the snappiest thing that they could come up with? For my money, I’d use the first two initials and call it the BC. Sounds a bit like the french ‘biciclette’ and yes, is a bit of a steal from the Bixi bike system in Montreal, but god, anything is better than the horribly unwieldy Barclays Cycle Hire… Any suggestions?

It’s Bike Week – your challenge – to safely cycle anywhere!

Oh goody. Bike Week is here again. That one week in the year when Brighton & Hove council pretend to give a toss about cycling and cyclists by doling out a few free croissants at Bike Breakfasts.

I had an op on my spine in December and so for around 8 months I wasn’t able to ride my bike. When I was able to get back in the saddle again, about 6 weeks ago, I was absolutely euphoric. A joy that was, of course, short-lived thanks to the frustrations of cycling around Brighton and Hove.

It beggars belief that we’re a national exemplar cycling town, I absolutely ache to make the counsellors who OK’d the design of the majority of our cycle lanes to hop on a bike and go for a ride, perhaps at the weekend. Say down the seafront?

If you’re lucky, this is one of the most lovely rides you can take in town, whizzing along the seafront, from the Marina to Hove. Of course, thanks to the ‘cycle lane’ being essentially a line drawn on the pavement, this means that at busy times it’s permanantly blocked with pedestrians. At the weekend, the cycle lane on the seafront rings with warning bike bells and the screams of abuse from pedestrians and frustrated cyclists alike.

Then you have the baffling lanes which don’t seem to go anywhere. Along the Old Steine, going towards Pavilion Parade, there is a small section of marked path which seems to suggest that you cycle on to the pavement. You do so. There is no cycle lane there. Now what? The splendid weird cycle lanes website covers this brilliantly and in far more depth than I ever could.

It’s not like there aren’t great cycle lanes already here in Brighton and Hove. In Grand Avenue, Hove there is, what has to be the Gold Standard for lanes. It’s brilliant. It’s on the road, but separated by a slightly built-up parts each side. When you cycle here, it’s a fabulous experience with no chance of encountering anything but other bikes. Bliss.

Oh – and yes, Brighton and Hove council are, I suppose, trying to encourage cycling but it all seems to be done in such a hopelessly cack-handed way. There’s not even enough places to safely chain bikes in town – which is why every lamp post in the North Laine is garlanded with cycles. All this makes me wonder, would the croissant budget be better spent on a few more bike racks?

And I’m still not sure I don’t believe the rumour that the entire Brighton and Hove bike network was designed by a jaded cab driver with a penchant for squashing cyclists… what other explanation can there be?

London to Brighton bike ride made a pain by the train

Yesterday was the annual London to Brighton bike ride. This year, more than 27,00 people took part in the grueling 54-mile journey. Last year £4.1million was raised for the British Heart Foundation. And what was the response from the rail companies to support this amazing charity effort? Did they lay on special trains to ferry the thousands of cyclists back to London? Or, in an act of gibbering idiocy, did they banish bikes from an entire chunk of the Southern rail network, making sure that cyclist either had to abandon their bikes or get friends to drive them back? Yes, of course, it was the latter.

I was astounded by this. A quick check of the the website says, “For the safety and comfort of passengers over the weekend of the London to Brighton bike ride there will be cycle restrictions in place.”

Look at what you could have won!

Look at what you could have won! Thanks to @demoncheese for aces pic

Just to make life simple, the two rail companies who operate from Brighton had different rules in place. First Capital Connect decided: ‘Bicycles will not be permitted all day on trains between Brighton and Gatwick Airport. Bicycles will not be permitted before 12.00 (noon) on trains between London Bridge and Gatwick Airport’. And Southern Railway announced: ‘Temporary restrictions are in place depending on which station you are travelling from and to. At some stations cycles are not accepted all day. At other stations cycles will only be accepted after 1200.’

This event has been around for some 30-years. So it can’t be claimed that the rail companies had no time to prepare for this. On a purely financial level, the rail companies stood to make huge profits if they had laid special trains on. As a PR move it would have been unbeatable. Say they’d made a £1 donation to the British Heart Foundation for each passenger. Golden publicity.

What they have done instead is enrage and baffle thousands of people and create mayhem on the roads for the whole of the South Coast. Mayhem which, inevitably, the cyclists get the blame for – this then adds to the endless car users Vs. cyclists war which rages in the UK.

I don’t think it’s asking for much to expect trains to supply the passenger’s needs. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for trains to make a little extra effort when it’s crystal-clear that they are needed. What is unforgiveable is for the trains to force thousands of potential passengers into cars and on to the roads. Southern and FCC have a year to make things right. Lay on extra trains. Organise special carriages JUST for bikes. Make a donation to the charity. Emerge as heroes not villains for once…

I found this from clip from Ciaran Cuffe, Ireland’s Minister of State for sustainable transport and travel. He’s just seen the multi-storey bike park at Amsterdam’s Central station… Unlike Brighton station, no security there to keep bikes away…

My complete lack of volcano-based travel hell…

I’ll admit it… a core of pure smug has been running through me since Volcano-gate kicked off as I’d already organised overnight train tickets to Barcelona before it happened. Whenever I can, I travel by train through Europe and the recent no-fly-zone had only confirmed my feelings that if you can take a journey by any-means-other than a plane then yes, you should.

High-speed subsidised, nationalised rail links, fast and frequent ferry routes — if Europe had these networks and policies in place, then the effects of the ash cloud would have been dramatically reduced. A dizzying 45% of trips in European airspace are less than 500km in length – which means hundreds of thousands of people could have merrily travelled stress-free (and probably far more enjoyably) if we had a basic travel infrastructure which looked beyond planes.

Of course, that smug glow was given a severe biffing when Eurostar suffered delays after a carbon dioxide sensor incident. Fortunately though, as I write, we’re *just * leaving. The time from entering the terminal to sitting down less than 30 minutes. No muss, no fuss. I’ll get from the centre of London to the centre of Paris within a couple of hours.

Oh, and I’ve taken my first sip of champagne… Bon voyage!

Pirates ahoy!

There’s a lot of talk about pirates – or to give them their proper name – pyrates – today, thanks to the delightfully dotty folk of Brixham who are attempting the World Record Pirate Gathering on Sunday. But however passionate these part-time sea-dogs are, they are mere amateurs compared to the truly outstanding pirates that I met in Key West, Florida at their annual Pirates in Paradise gathering.

In the States, being a pirate seems to be a perfectly reasonable full-time gig.

Seriously.

Bone Island Buccaneers Fight Circle

Bone Island Buccaneers Fight Circle

The pirates that travel from across the USA to meet up in Key West take their pirating VERY seriously indeed. Each pirate has their own backstory. Their “costume” is fully researched to be historically accurate. They try their very best, bless them, to mimic Johnny Depp in full Cap’n Sparrow twisted mockney at all times. They drink mead. They even have blunderbuss which they gleefully discharge with a bellow, “Fire in the hole!”.

The home-town pirate troupe in Key West, the Bone Island Buccaneers, meet three times a week to practice cannon drill, shanty singing and sword play. The dress as pirates, well, pretty much all the time. I met a particularly excellent chap who genuinely had a wooden leg. He lost one of his own through diabetes, demanded that they fit a stump, moved on to a house boat, got a parrot and now IS a pirate. He’s also a patient-advocate for those who’ve suffered amputation. I asked him how on earth people reacted when he clomped into their hospital room after the trauma of having a leg removed. He looked at me and grinned. “They either laugh or start hysterically crying. Shows them that if I can get by with a wooden stump, they’ll be just fine with a prosthetic limb.”

On board the Good Ship Wolf

On board the Good Ship Wolf

Pirates in Paradise takes place in November 26th – December 5th. It’s their 11th year and it’s probably the most fun I’ve had.

Here’s the piece I wrote about it for the Sunday Mirror. Go. It’s awesome.

In praise of blue skies & train lines…

I’m rather enjoying the no-fly zone at the moment. The skies are blue, reports are flying in (excuse pun) of people under flight paths hearing birdsong for the first time and c’mon – how exciting would it be to end your holiday by coming home via the Arc Royal! Twitter seems to be proving helpful with the #getmehome hashtag getting hundreds of tweets.

There. Don't you feel more relaxed already?

There. Don't you feel more relaxed already?

That said, I understand it’s created havoc for thousands and wiped millions from balance sheets. So I’m not unsympathetic. In fact I’m excited by the possibilities. I’ve heard reports on twitter about bike-sharing so people can travel on no-foot-passenger ferries, seen sites like roadsharing become more popular, and I bet the ever-fabulous Seat61 has seen a serious increase in traffic.

But what are the alternatives. Well, when it comes to travel in Europe, I have to say I always hit the raileurope website. I love to travel by train whenever I can. You get a sense of distance, get to see the world change before your eyes and with high-speed links, it’s really not that difficult to get from one end of Europe to the other in a day or so. Yes, you have to give more time to the venture but as I said, for me the pay-off is a far more enjoyable experience.

Time for bed...

Time for bed...

I’m heading to Barcelona in May, I’ll be leaving Brighton around noon on Sunday travelling to London St Pancras where I’ll catch the Eurostar, arrive in Paris and then catch the evening train to Barcelona. Think about it. For around £200 RTN, I get a comfy room for the night each way, plus a dinner, breakfast and I get to arrive refreshed and ready to go in the heart of the city. Perfect. No muss, no fuss and hopefully, no chance of volcano-based disruptions either…

Trains not planes along the Mayan Riviera

Good news for the environment today, after Protea Hotels announced that they intend to withdraw their application to build a 144-bed hotel and conference centre in the Chiawa Game Management Area in Zambia.

Members of the UK’s Ethical Tour Operators Group have been lobbying against this, along with other environmental groups, as the land that Proteo planned to build on is just across the river from the Mana Pools National Park, a World Heritage Site and known as one of Africa’s best game-viewing regions.

It’s always kind of amazing when a large company backs down in the face of environmental concerns. It’s a tragedy though, that protesters haven’t managed to win the day in Tulum, Mexico. Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, announced on the 22nd March that plans to construct an International Airport, with the capacity for 3 million passengers per year, are to go ahead. This is, I think, disastrous news for this stunning and thus-far, largely unspoilt region just 80 miles away from Cancun.

Coming soon to Tulum?

Coming soon to Tulum?

Cancun already handles around 12 million air passengers each year, it’s only 90 minutes drive away from Tulum and certainly has the capacity to deal with those extra passengers. The site of one of the world’s best-preserved Mayan ruins should clearly not be minutes away from an international airport.

I found a working paper from King’s College London, ‘Coping, Governance and Deevelopment: The Climate Change Adaption Triad which made for interesting and rather alarming reading. Development in Tulum over the past two years has already taken away 77 hectares of mangrove and forest which used to protect the town from hurricanes, a second phase is also planned which, “…comprises 450 ha; including a mega golf course that would extend up to the beach, and a grid of water channels resembling an inland (Venice-style) marina. If fully executed, this project would dramatically increase the exposure of Tulum to hurricanes by degrading the ecosystem services for coastal protection.”

It seems like a no-brainer that measures are being taken which will leave Tulum vulnerable to environmental damage. However, it’s not too late. The bidding process begins tomorrow for Tulum International, nothing has been built yet, there’s still a chance to change opinion.

All this comes on a day when AITO has rejected calls for increased airport capacity across the UK, calling instead for a ‘back to basics’ policy of ensuring that planes fly at capacity. Add to that the Conservative party’s latest manifesto which suggests scrapping plans for a third runway at Heathrow and instead investing in high-speed rail links. With that in mind, doesn’t it makes sense to abandon plans for an airport and instead look at alternatives?

Tulum

Really? You want to put an airport near here?

Some of the most amazing rail journies in the world are along coastal routes, so what about a Mayan Riviera Rail Explorer that links Cancun Airport with resort towns like Puerto Moreles and Playa del Carmen along the way?

So, what do you think? Is Tulum’s proposed International Airport a mistake? Would a rail-link work instead? Let me know..

Thanks to http://www.theakumalian.com for the image.

The best hotel room in the world?

I’ve been lucky enough to stay in some amazing five-star hotel rooms over the years. Hotel rooms with pillow menus, water menus, and once, even a bubble-bath menu. I’ve stayed in hotel suites so decadent that at times it felt like I’d wandered into a mid-80s Duran Duran coke-excess video shoot by mistake… Hotel rooms with en-suite helicopter pads, hot-and-cold running butlers and sheet thread counts that ran into four-figures. But all of it pales into insignificance (OK, except, perhaps the place in Mexico with its own in-room Jacuzzi and towel-swan water tableau – really) when compared to the Best Hotel Room in the World, in Sri Lanka.

The best hotel in the world ever?

Possibly the best hotel in the world...

OK, so it wouldn’t win any prizes for luxury. It was made of wood, like an over-grown treehouse, and perched next to a river.The “bathroom” was accessed via a step ladder through a trap-door. The shower was a stone with a pipe bored through the centre. Turn the “tap” and freezing cold water from the river gushed out. Of course, the lack of air-con meant that an icy hosing-down was exactly what you wanted. And the toilet? Well, let’s not discuss that here.

Water straight from the river

Icy water straight from the river

I got to Rafter’s Retreat in the evening. Kitulgala, is a few hours drive from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. After a blissfully simple barbecue supper,I  slipped away from the others and went to bed early. I hopped in and out of the frosty shower, trying to muffle my shrieks from the shock of the cold. I batted away the bugs who gathered around the swinging lightbulb, all seeming far too interested in trying a bite of the dish of the day Boiling Hot Hackette…

The best hotel room in the world?

The best hotel room in the world?

My skin was rosy from the day’s sun and the heart-pounding cold dip I’d just taken. I pulled a T-shirt over my damp head and wriggled under the mozzie net to lie on the bed. I turned the light off and lay there, listening to the sound of night-time in the jungle. The river was running high and it was splashing rhythmically just beyond the porch door. I’d tried to peer out earlier, but it was too dark to see. I could hear crickets chirping and the distant sound of laughter from the patio-barbecue. So rarely do you get to hear the sounds of the night when you’re away traveling. The drone of the air-con drowns all sound. Windows which aren’t designed to open or let in the sounds or smells of the city, seal us into hotel rooms. The chance to lie there, in the pitch-black darkness and listen to unfamiliar noises was an incredible treat. I was lulled to sleep by the babbling water and woke with the dawn. Time to investigate that other door which over-looked the river. A tangle of trees – the jungle? – with a splash of river crashing past and a wooden bench to sit on. I sat back silently, watching the sky wake up. Pink, orange and apricot as the sun blushed into life. The best night’s sleep. The best view in the world. And the best hotel room in the world? I think so.

Breakfast in Baja California

After a week of bland hotel breakfasts in Baja California, Mexico, I managed to sneak away from my hosts to find a morning meal so perfect that I can still recall everything from the smoky taste of the tortilla, to the colour of the napkin dispenser.

It was exactly the kind of meal that everyone wants to eat on holiday; that unexpected, wholly authentic and, of course, thrillingly cheap meal you rave about once you get home, that you’ll never recreate, no matter how long you spend ransacking google for recipes.

It was at a road-side stall in Baja’s capital, La Paz. Three wobbly Corona beer tables with blue plastic chairs were next to a wagon at the side of the road, on the heat-cracked pavement. The wagon had a deep-fat fryer, prep area and fixings station with a canopy on top. A cook with a fastidiously-clean food-prep mask was toiling away over the steam and spit.

I ordered a fish taco and within minutes was handed a steaming-hot tortilla, topped with freshly-fried fish goujons. The fish had been caught perhaps an hour before from the sea, just a few metres away, on the other side of the road. Taking my cue from the older guys who were sitting around, munching on tacos and openly staring at the gringa who’d come to have brekkie with them, I slathered my fish in sour cream, a helping of guacamole and a judicious squish of fresh lime.

Rolling it with my hands into something I could realistically not throw all over the floor en-route to my mouth, I crammed in as much in as I could, and groaned with delight. The freshest fish I’d ever tasted, wrapped in a spicey wisp of lighter-than-air batter. The tortilla was warm and puffy, chewy with just the right amount of saltiness. And the cream and guacamole, a whoosh of fresh, tartness, then a cooling bland creaminess.

The turquoise Sea of Cortez was twinkling away in front of us. The early-morning sun beaming through the Bougainvillea and the tinny sound of the radio from the battery set tied to the wagon, playing Mexican pop… if I close my eyes I’m there; feeling the warmth of the sun on my toes in my flip-flops and the delight that the locals showed when I had a second helping.

Food critic Jay Rayner wrote, “…denying yourself an edible pleasure just because you couldn’t safely remove someone’s appendix in the room in which it was prepared, seems just plain foolish, not to mention self-defeating.” Too often, tourists play it safe, choosing the familiar over the unknown. I could guess from the happy clientele and surprising addition of a face-mask that this was a business that took its food seriously. I had nothing to lose, except, perhaps my breakfast!

Good food should sometimes be a gamble – one I’d take for another bite of that Baja breakfast any time…

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.